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An engaging, but not entirely successful, literary study
on July 16, 2001
So, what is this book about? Well, contrary to what some of the "reviews" below assume, it's not about contemporary Middle East politics, or media coverage thereof, or anything even remotely like that. It's about literature-- European literature to be specific.
Essentially, Said proposes to look at what he calls "Imperialism" in European literature. (Although the title is "Culture and Imperialism" and while he does discuss one opera, he's not really concerned with culture or art, more broadly. He's really talking about literature here-- and especially novels. In truth, "Literature and Imperialism" would be a more accurate title.
So, what is imperialism, as Said uses it here? It is, he explains, an ideology-- a set of assumptions-- that justifies, supports, and legitimates the conquest, control, and domination of lands that are inhabited by other people, who speak different languages and have other traditions. Imperialism, as an ideology, is thus distinct from "Colonialism", which is the actual, real, activity of conquering, controling, and domination other lands and people. Imperialism is, Said might say, the intellectual/cultural/ideological base that makes an otherwise morally dubious project of colonialism (conquering and ruling over others) seem acceptable, even justifiable.
Essentially, Said traces the role that imperialism (as defineed above) plays in a host of European literary works, focussing on the past two centuries. After his theoretical/methodological introduction, each chapter is devoted to the discussion of a single literary work (or in some cases, multiple works by the same author), illuminating its imperialist qualities. In doing so, he chooses only truly great literary works by the biggest and best names, and he also leaves a side a fewer mediocre authors who might have been obvious targets (like Kipling). Said's reason for doing this, I believe, is twofold: First, I think, is the simple fact that he, like all true lovers of literature, prefers to discuss works that are truly great on their own right, rather than ones that are merely mediocre but happen to prove his point. Secondly, Said wants to show that the imperialist ideologies he's talking about weren't just a peripheral sidenote in European culture-- but that they were part and parcel of its finest artistic achievements. He does this, not as some of his critics might suppose, to indict European culture or to question the greatness of any of these texts. Quite the contrary, I think, Said is concerned with showing how important and central this subject is to the history of European literature.
The only problem is that a lot of the individual chapters (which are more or less case studies of specific works/authors) seem unsuccessful. Obviously this is not the case in his chapters on Conrad, or on Verdi's "Aida", both of which have clear and undeniable imperial/colonial elements to them. However, his discussion of Jane Austin's works (for example), seems quite unconvincing. Yes, there is the brief moment in one novel where the family patriarch announces that he is leaving to look after some of the family's "sugar interests" in the Caribbean.... but that's the closest one can get to an "imperialist moment" in Austin. Said does, of course, acknowledge that it's not much-- and he does show how the father's absence enables many of the other events in the novel to transpire-- but it seems a bit forced. Even the chapter on Verdi falls short a couple of times because Said seems to ignore the fact that, in many ways, Aida was an explicitly *anti-colonialist* opera that was most often interpreted as a quasi allegory *criticizing* Italian intervention in East Africa. (Paul Robinson actually has a great chapter on this subject in his book, "Opera and Ideas").
Still, in spite of its faults, and in spite of the fact that it doesn't establish its claim that "imperialism is the central theme" of European literature in the 19th century, "Culture and Imperialism" is a worthwile book to read. While Said may overstate his case, he's definitely on to something important, and at the very least, he offers new and fresh perspectives of many great literary works that, in the end, go to show just how wonderfully complex, insightful, and meaningful those works are, both in and of themselves, and to the history of literature and ideas as a whole. (Oh yes, I suppose I should add that, in contrast to many contemporary literary critics, Said can write well, and clearly. Additionally, he's even retreated from the Foucauldian basis of some of his earlier work, and "Culture and Imperialism" has very much the feel of a good ol' fashioned piece of literary criticism, rather than something that bows to the current thoretical academic trends). Highly recommended.